BJP’s RS nomination of titular king spurs political crisis in Manipur

It has been demanded that the 'king' should abdicate his customary kingship before contesting polls

Leishemba Sanajaoba
Manipur's titular king and BJP nominee Leishemba Sanajaoba | Photo: David Mayum

The current political crisis in Manipur following a split in the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) late Wednesday (June 17) evening, was propelled by the BJP’s decision to nominate Leishemba Sanajaoba, the state’s titular king, for the lone Rajya Sabha seat from Manipur.

At least two members of the breakaway group told The Federal that the latest trigger behind their decision to sever ties with the BJP was the public sentiment against Sanajaoba’s nomination.

“We are under pressure not to support Sanajaoba during the voting for the Rajya Sabha seat,” said one of the MLAs who switched side to join the Congress.

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Congress’s Rajya Sabha candidate T Mangibabu Singh | Photo: David Mayum

The election for the state’s lone Rajya Sabha seat will be held on June 19. In the direct contest, Sanajaoba is pitted against the Congress’s T Mangibabu, a former minister. Given the present numbers in the Assembly, Mangibabu is likely to romp to victory unless the BJP pulls off a last-minute surprise.

After the resignations of three BJP MLAs and the withdrawal of support by four National People’s Party (NPP) legislators, one MLA of the Trinamool Congress and an Independent, the strength of the NDA in the state shrunk to 23, of which BJP has 18 members.

The Congress, with the new found support of the NPP, TMC and an Independent, now has the backing of 26 (20 of its own) legislators. It’s unlikely that the three breakaway BJP legislators — TT Haokip, Subaschandra Singh and Samuel Jendai — would be allowed to vote on June 19.

Congress legislators leave Raj Bhavan on Thursday evening | Photo: David Mayum

Earlier this month, the Manipur High Court had directed Assembly Speaker Yumnam Khemchand to “restrain” seven Congress MLAs, who had “defected” to the BJP, from entering the House until further orders. Another MLA, Shyamkumar, who had defected to the BJP three years ago, was disqualified under the anti-defection law.

So the strength of the 60-member Assembly now is effectively 49.

The newly stitched Secular Progressive Front, led by the Congress, on Thursday (June 18) urged Governor Najma Heptulla to convene a special Assembly session for a floor test of the N Biren Singh-led NDA government.

The simmering dissidence gnawing at the three-year-old Biren Singh government for about eight months, got a fresh momentum after Sanajaoba was picked as Rajya Sabha candidate by the BJP.

The move stirred up a storm in the state as the ‘kingship’ has been a rallying symbol of Manipuri nationalism since Maharaja Bodhachandra Singh, the last ruler of the erstwhile Kingdom of Manipur, was allegedly made to sign under duress a merger agreement with India in Shillong on September 21, 1949.

Till date, the secessionist groups in the state often try to use his name to push their anti-India cause. In October last year, when a dubious businessman and a failed politician from Manipur announced the formation of a “Manipur government in exile” in the UK, they claimed to have been representing the “king.”

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Since Sanajaoba continues to be the symbolic and spiritual head of many ritualistic traditions of the erstwhile Manipur Kingdom, his decision to contest elections for the Upper House of Indian parliament is perceived by many as undermining his larger royal stature as “Maharaja.”

Sanajaoba was the notable absentee in Thursday’s (June 18) Unity Day programme at Kekrupat in Imphal. Every year, he graces the programme organised to commemorate the 2001 July uprising in which 18 protesters died in the firing when people in the Manipur valley went on a rampage, objecting to the extension of a ceasefire agreement with the NSCN (Isak-Muivah) beyond the Naga-inhabited areas. The truce extension was viewed in the valley as an attempt to disintegrate the state.

The chairman of the ‘Unity Day’ observation committee, Sunil Karam, said Sanajaoba would no longer grace the annual programme as six civil society organisations (CSOs) have decided to de-recognise him as the king.

“The titular King is the head of the cultural, traditional, religious, rituals, customary laws and practices in Manipur, both in hills and the valley. He is also entitled to personal rights, privileges, dignities, titles, authority over religious observances, rites and ceremonies. The Merger Agreement of Manipur signed on September 21, 1949 specifically mentioned these points,” Karam said.

“The social status of the titular king is much higher than that of a Member of Parliament,” he added.

The organisations demanded that the ‘king’ should first abdicate his customary kingship before contesting the Rajya Sabha elections.

Related news: Deputy Chief Minister, 3 ministers resign from BJP-led govt in Manipur

Such was his influence and emotional connect with the people of the state that in July 2013, members of the civil society organisations and women groups camped at the Sana Konung (the royal palace) to protect it from possible acquisition by the government to make it a museum and tourist spot following a Cabinet decision.

More than 220 Tangkhul village chiefs from Ukhrul joined the protest against the Cabinet decision to take over the Sana Konung.

Considering the influence he still wields over the people, the BJP, for the last three years, has been wooing the ‘king’ to come under its banner, a move viewed as an attempt to dilute Manipuri sub-nationalism.

“The people see a sinister design to push the BJP’s brand of pan-nationalism behind the nomination,” said Pradip Phanjoubam, the editor of the Imphal Free Press.

The BJP though denied the charge, saying people are trying to make “mountain out of a molehill.” “There is nothing unusual in this. Many erstwhile maharajas have joined active politics, and became MPs and MLAs. The ‘king’ can always play the dual role,” said BJP spokesperson Ch Bijoy.

He also told The Federal that the ‘king’ was going through a lot of financial hardships and his election to the Rajya Sabha would help him overcome the crisis.

However, not many are willing to buy the argument.

“If the intent was so then Sanajaoba’s nomination could have come from the President to fill one of the 12 seats at his discretion to bring in people of extraordinary achievement and merit in the fields of arts, culture and social service to the Parliament. This, unfortunately, was not the case. The BJP seems to want to field Sanajaoba as its favourite gladiator in the state’s electoral arena,” Phanjoubam opined.

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